Severe storms cause two-day power outage in Eastern Wisconsin, expose vulnerability in disaster response
It’s Wednesday night. I sit in the second floor of my home on 5th Street and Keefe Avenue in Milwaukee’s North Side Harambee neighborhood. I’m burning a candle and writing this by the light of a headlamp I just bought at a Walgreens two-or-so miles away. The lights are on there but where I sit we’ve been without power for more than 24 hours. On my block in particular, downed trees have cordoned off either side of our unusually long block for the last two nights, not allowing any car traffic in or out.
A flash-storm of rain and high-speed winds — between 50 and 70 miles-per-hour — hit parts of Eastern Wisconsin Tuesday night. The damage extends from Milwaukee to Kenosha and Sun Prairie in Southeastern Wisconsin, the Appleton area and areas along the Wisconsin-Michigan border including Iron Mountain. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel more than 225,000 people were affected at the height. Thursday afternoon, almost two full days later, more than 50,000 people still have yet to regain power. In Milwaukee, large swaths of the North Side — all the way from just east of Holton Street to 35th & Villard — is black, with countless trees and branches littering side-streets. Some areas on the South Side were also hit.
This power outage is the most widespread and longest I’ve experienced. Unfortunately, I fear I will live to see much worse. Incidents such as this and the crisis in Texas earlier this year, where millions were without power and running water, some for as long as two weeks, tell a gloomy tale of a future where essential systems may find themselves increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic natural disasters. It begs the question of whether local, state and federal governments are well enough equipped to respond. So far, the answer seems to be that we are not ready for what’s to come.
In fact, Milwaukee authorities have been particularly negligent as the city, America’s most segregated, struggles to employ its communities of color. The city’s lead poisoning crisis continues almost unchecked as elected leaders do little more than sweep the truth under the rug. And the inability of local leaders to counteract ingrained systems of injustice continue to hurt people, particularly the city’s Black & Latinx populations.
On a personal note, this incident happens to overlap with my daughter’s first visit back to the city since she moved out of state. Initially, she was frustrated by the inability to charge her mobile phone, a pressure we all experienced (particularly since landlines, which operate on cable, not electricity, no longer exist). But we made the most of the moment, enjoying an evening of Uno and Yhatzee to the light of one of my mother’s oil lamps.
We spent the following afternoon at the State Fair and, on our way home, drove through downtown, which was fully lit. She remarked, in the innocent kind of way children do, that it was ridiculous our neighborhood could be out of power while the rest of the city carries on like nothing happened. And I agree.
Now, we must acknowledge all the public employees and others working to restore power and clear the roads of debris. However, this situation has exposed the vulnerability of our disaster relief response. To have ZERO communication from our local government and be forced to wait so long for local energy company We Energies to get to us would seem to demonstrate the gulf in capacity and preparedness that exists. After all, this was only one night. What if we were to experience days, or weeks, of intense storms? What if this had been in winter?
We have already seen devastating wildfires and water rationing in California, a historic freeze and power outage in Texas and now this — a critical failure of, no doubt, one of the most resilient power grids in the country. Honestly, there’s no telling what’s next. But it would behoove us to heed the signs and take steps to protect ourselves before it’s too late.